After the 2019 season, once again, Orlando City SC were at a crossroads. The campaign wrapped all too familiar, coming to an end with the final whistle on Decision Day presented by AT&T. Orlando had zero playoff appearances to show for their first five seasons in MLS, but already cycled through three full-time head coaches and were searching for number four.
Optimism sprung anew, such is the hopeful allure of sports. Things were different this winter, anyway, with a new front office in place a year prior led by EVP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi. The decision-maker earned a solid reputation for his work at FC Dallas, helping the club through a transition of their own into a top-tier MLS team today. This was to be his first head coaching hire at the club. Staring at a decision that could change the course of a club for years to come, Muzzi considered the coaching search.
Who do we want to be?
With the vision formed in his head, Muzzi knew the perfect man for the job: His former colleague in Dallas, Oscar Pareja.
“Is there somebody else who could do this job? Maybe," Muzzi asked himself during a phone conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week. "But is there anybody better than Oscar? I don’t think so.”
Muzzi got to work, knowing full well there was a chance it was an impossibility. Pareja only departed Dallas and MLS for Club Tijuana and Liga MX a year prior. He was still under contract with and, while he was interested in a return to MLS, he wasn't going to kick and scream his way out of Xolos if the club didn't agree. Pareja was content and respectful of his contract, Muzzi said.
“From an ownership point of view, from day one, they said ‘yeah, if you can make this happen, let’s do it,’" Muzzi recalled. "Then we just had to make it happen, right?”
Both Pareja and Orlando were honest with Tijuana from the beginning, helping declutter a process which could have easily been complicated with the moving parts. With their approach and Tijuana's respect for Pareja, a route towards a deal was paved. Tijuana understood Pareja's preference to return to MLS. Once they got the green light from Tijuana to proceed, Pareja was on board.
Their relationship during their successful years in Dallas laid the groundwork and Pareja saw the potential to do something similar with the Lions. They have a second team, Orlando City B, they placed a renewed focus on the academy and opened a brand new training facility in January, which helps to align the academy, second team and first team. He also knew the passion for the club within the city of Orlando, with feverish support at Exploria Stadium.
“He saw the project and all the possibilities here," Muzzi said. "He refers to this as a beautiful project."
“It was a beautiful opportunity," Pareja said in a video conference with reporters on Tuesday, just as Muzzi promised. “I wanted to come back to Major League Soccer after my experience in Mexico. I know it’s been a difficult journey for Orlando, the club haven’t qualified for the playoffs – that doesn’t mean they failed, but it’s been difficult. To get the opportunity to create and build something is (what I wanted.) I’ve done it before, having the chance to create unity from the academy and the second team to the first team."
Pareja's appointment was well-received across the league upon announcement and early returns are even better than expected. They took the MLS is Back Tournament by storm, picking up two wins and a draw during group stage play to vault up the regular season standings and have advanced to the tournament semifinal, just two wins away from their first piece of silverware and their first berth to the Concacaf Champions League.
The vision is coming to life, with Pareja — armed with a few key new signings like Pedro Gallese, Antonio Carlos and Junior Urso joining the likes of Nani, Mauricio Pereyra and more — immediately producing results.
“I’ve found a group of players that are advanced, I have to give the credit not just to the people who work at the club, but the players," Pareja said. "We have almost the same roster as last year and they put things together, it gives me a lot of joy to see they’re getting results.”
The end goal for Orlando is not simply success at the tournament, nor is it even about success in year one. It's about building a lasting foundation, one that helps buoy the club for years to come.
“There are a lot of things that need to be just right," Muzzi said of his role in the hire. "You try your best, you try to get the right people, that’s the key thing. That’s what matters. One person doesn’t do anything. Those guys are in the trenches, that’s what it is.”
And Muzzi knew he added the right people in Pareja and his staff.
"The players see the passion from Oscar and what’s he’s saying," Muzzi said. "They know why they’re training one way, they know why they’re playing one way. There’s a purpose for everything. So, yes, I expected things to change this quickly.”